'Irreplaceable' ('Medecin de campagne'): Film Review

Courtesy of Jair Sfez
Quality French drama.

French box-office star Francois Cluzet ('Intouchables') headlines this novelistic medical drama from doctor-turned-director Thomas Lilti ('Hippocrates').

A middle-aged country doctor is diagnosed with a disease that forces him to take on a replacement with little experience in Irreplaceable (Medecin de campagne), from French doctor-turned-director Thomas Lilti. This is the filmmaker’s third feature, after Les Yeux bandés and Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor, and indeed, if the latter title, about a medical apprentice at a chaotic Paris hospital, hadn’t already been taken, his latest could have been called Diary of a Country Doctor — which would suggest both what the film is about as well as the story’s gently observational qualities, which impart a novelistic touch.

Given that Hippocrates was a surprise box-office sensation with over 800,000 admissions despite a relative lack of star power and that Irreplaceable is headlined by Francois Cluzet, the lead from gargantuan hit Intouchables, this stands a decent chance of being a solid if probably not exceptional performer locally when it opens March 23. Offshore, this will be of interest to distributors who know how to handle quality French dramas.

Jean-Pierre Werner (Cluzet) is a no-nonsense but not unkind country doctor whose routine is firmly established and whose role in the rural communities he looks after often extends beyond just checking his patients’ physical well-being. In the film’s opening scenes, he’s told he needs to stop working if he wants to get better because he needs to concentrate on his upcoming treatments (the disease is never quite specified).

Even this early on, Lilti shows his gift for simple but very telling understatement by offering a point-of-view shot from Jean-Pierre, who, instead of listening to what the doctor is telling him, focuses on his colleague’s name tag and a nearby stain on his otherwise immaculately white outfit. Without saying a word, audiences will immediately understand that they’re dealing with a man who has been through this exact situation hundreds of times but who now, on the receiving end, finds it just as difficult to take as any of his patients and would prefer to block it out.

After he’s come back from the hospital, there’s a montage sequence that shows Werner’s busy quotidian routine as a country doctor, set to LOW’s up-tempo, even zesty score. Again without words, the filmmaker illustrates what the doctor is doing and thinking as it becomes clear that instead of listening to the advice of his colleague, Jean-Pierre has thrown himself into work as a distraction and as a way of reassuring himself that nothing has changed. This is why he isn’t pleased when the hospital sends him Nathalie Delezia (Marianne Denicourt, from Hippocrates), a woman not more than a decade Jean-Pierre’s junior who is, however, just out of medical school (she only started studying after 10 years at the hospital’s first-aid department).

He’s not very kind to Nathalie -- “I know studying medicine takes a long time but maybe you exaggerated…” he tells the woman in her late forties, making sure it’s ambiguous whether he’s trying to be funny or not -- but also rationally knows he needs to take her on. So he does, albeit grudgingly since clearly, though again this is never stated outright, he sees her as a physical reminder of the fact he’s ill.

With characters this finely chiseled and superbly played by the cast, it is possible for Lilti and Hippocrates co-scribe Baya Kasmi, to introduce not one but two main sources of conflict: the relationship between Jean-Pierre and the inexperienced Nathalie, with some of her beginners’ faux pas played for gentle chuckles initially, and the relationship of Jean-Pierre with his own conscience, which needs to come to terms with his predicament. To complicate matters, the way Werner, who has an adult son (Felix Moati, also from Hippocrates) but is now single, has chosen to deal with his illness is to try and concentrate on the one thing he’s been told to let go: his life’s work.

Irreplaceable finally plays out as a strongly observational character drama that suggests something about who these people are and how they deal with what’s thrown at them while also painting a convincing picture of everyday life in rural France in the 21st century and medical care and its associated problems in that community in particular. The inevitable big clash between Nathalie and Jean-Pierre may be a little too predictable and on-the-nose, and its almost immediate reversal feels more like a convenient plot ploy than something that's entirely organic, though those are minor quibbles in a film that’s otherwise a portrait of restraint.

Like Hippocratus, the film also bristles with humor, mostly drawn from life, and illuminating moments of irony. A gorgeous example of the latter is the very last shot, which offers a gently satirical send-up of pulp novels and their filmic equivalents, in which the country doctor and his female replacement would’ve ridden off into the sunset together.

Production companies: 31 Juin Films, Les Films du Parc, Cinefrance, Le Pacte, France 2 Cinema

Cast: François Cluzet, Marianne Denicourt, Isabelle Sadoyan, Felix Moati, Christophe Odent, Patrick Descamps, Guy Faucher, Margaux Fabre, Julien Lucas, Yohann Goetzmann, Josee Laprun, Philippe Bertin, Geraldine Schitter

Director: Thomas Lilti

Screenplay: Thomas Lilti, Baya Kasmi

Producers: Agnes Vallee, Emmanuel Barraux

Director of photography: Nicolas Gaurin

Production designer: Philippe Van Herwijnen

Costume designer: Dorothee Guiraud

Editor: Christel Dewynter

Music: LOW

Casting: Julie Navarro

Sales: Le Pacte


No rating, 102 minutes